All too often classic tomes are reduced in length and detail as to make them more accessible to the modern imagination. Those who haven’t read Dickens’s Oliver Twist could be forgiven for not having heard of Rose Maylie – the orphan’s long-lost aunt. Similarly, perhaps it is only Janeites (and those of us who are fans of Austen, but who can’t bring ourselves to use the J-word) who are au fait with Charlotte Lucas’s romantic dilemma in Pride and Prejudice.
Time has a habit of chopping away those fatty parts of a story it deems unpalatable.
And so, the numerous adventures reserved for Gulliver have been discarded in the modern mind, bar one: his voyage to the land of Lilliput, with its six-inch tall inhabitants. It is here that Swift employs his most scathing polemic on English society. The triviality of war, the ineptitude of politicians (some things never change), and the insignificant details that separate church from church are all handled with the author’s typical wit and flair.
Perhaps it is Swift’s critique of the feud between the Catholic Church and the Church of England that is most worthy of mentioning. Here we read that all Lilliputians originally split their eggs open by cracking the big end, and are subsequently known as big-endians. But there were those who decided to give the small end a whirl, converting (as it were) to small-endians. The two factions separated, with the small-endians becoming dominant and their counterparts being denounced and marginalised. If there is a more accurate or memorable satire on the trifling nature of religion, I am yet to read it.
“My Little Grildrig, you have made a most admirable panegyric upon your country; you have clearly proved, that ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator; that laws are best explained, interpreted, and applied, by those whose interest and abilities lie in perverting, confounding, and eluding them. . . I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Gulliver’s Travels (Part II, Chapter VI)
Gulliver’s return home from Lilliput does not herald the end of his adventures, however; for our Gulliver is a restless old thing. We see him traveling far afield, encountering the immortal inhabitants of Luggnagg, the maths-obsessed natives of Laputa, and the entirely unpronounceable Houyhnhnms, featured in the final volume of the novel.
It is this last volume that is perhaps my favourite. The Houyhnhnms are a civil race of horses: communicative, peaceful, untainted by the outside world. They are contrasted by the vulgar, brutish Yahoos (a word invented by Swift, and used today to describe loutish yobs). In this, Swift’s last attack on human nature, the horses are represented as reasonable and wise creatures, whilst the human-like Yahoos are violent and coarse – two characteristics Swift deplored.
Gulliver’s Travels is not a book to be read lightly. It explores themes of war, political power, corruption, and self-discovery. Rich and dense in political satire and unforgettable adventures, its influence on the works of other writers is blatant – not just its vivid content, but its literary style and format. It is a vibrant novel that has held the attention of subsequent generations for almost three-hundred years; and it is with this in mind, dear reader, that I would encourage you to maintain this tradition and add Gulliver’s Travels to your must-read list.